Reverse Culture Shock

As we prepare to head back to the States, I’m reminded of stories that our friends have told us about their own experiences as they have returned home, especially those who have children who have grown up in Africa.

In Nigeria, a very common sight is people using the bathroom very, well, publicly.  I’m sure there must be some kind of unspoken code about proper bathroom-using etiquette, but I haven’t figured it out; after all, as we have mentioned before, churchgoers from the church next to our house will often pee (or otherwise) on the side of our house with no regard for the white gal standing at the window.  Signs just outside our gate threaten, “DO NOT URINATE HERE.  YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.”  (Note: Warning ineffective.) The little boy next door will, in the middle of playing with Judah, suddenly pull his pants down and urinate on the concrete in the middle of their play.  (We’ve been told, though, that boys’ urine is sterile, so perhaps we shouldn’t be so hasty to move the play elsewhere.)  Just yesterday my friend and I couldn’t help but gape when we saw a man squat to use the bathroom just inches off the side of a very busy road – never mind that there was a wooded area about a foot away that would’ve provided privacy.  Not to mention – more significantly – a shelter from our witness.  (But when you gotta go, you gotta go, I guess….)

I suppose it’s no surprise, then, (Well, except to their parents, who hadn’t even considered this….) that when this one family went home, their daughters didn’t think too much about toilets.  Even in the middle of Wal-Mart, where their seven year old daughter suddenly squatted in the aisle and peed as the parents looked on in horror, probably thinking about all the things they hadn’t thought to brief their African-raised daughters on about American culture.  Simple oversight, I suppose, but an embarrassing one for them (so much so that they actually just abandoned the aisle without telling anyone that there was a clean-up needed in aisle 3.  But you didn’t hear that from me.)

At the mall, the son of another ex-pat here couldn’t understand why those people were just standing in the store windows staring at him.  Sure, he was used to being stared at by Africans, but why were these white people giving him the stare down?  They were the same color, after all – albeit a little more motionless and mannequin-like.  😉

And then there is a co-worker whose son was amazed that all the people in their home country spoke the same language.  Coming from a country where over 500 languages are spoken, this was flabbergasting to him.  Or our friend who went into McDonald’s for the first time as a teenager and had no clue what the items on the menu even were as she stood there frozen and feeling embarrassed and dumb.  Another family, after telling their children that they were going to their hotel room, stepped into an elevator – which the son thought WAS their hotel room.

Driving is probably one of the areas where this shock might be most prevalent for us.  We know people who have returned to the States and, after being so used to driving here, have just blown through red lights without a second thought.  Yikes.  I know that when I returned from about six months in Ireland, I was pretty convinced that I was culturally unaffected by my time there; after all, I felt fine and wasn’t tired, and really, I wasn’t even there that long.

…Until I found myself driving on the wrong side of the road.  (Luckily it was a little side street.  After that, though, I would talk myself through what side of the road to drive on until I had grown once again used to life at home.)

So I’m hoping that my Nigerian driving position of one hand fastened securely on the horn doesn’t subconsciously take over and that I don’t find myself in the middle of Miami blowing my horn like a raging maniac.

When we were in the States last time, Chris found himself unconsciously doing things with his right hand, a habit acquired here because of the fairly widespread belief that the left hand is unclean.  He realized how ingrained it had become when he found himself reaching across his body to hand the woman at the toll booth his money with his right hand.

At this age, we don’t expect that Judah will experience what many children of our friends have experienced, but the likelihood grows as he does.  Right now he gets pretty excited when the power comes on, and he runs to the window, where a light bulb is set to turn on when the city power is on.  He bounces over to me and Chris and shouts, “NEPA!”

Judah, happy and at home wherever Daddy and Mommy are

I guess the fascination with city power will soon wear off when it’s a constant.

I suppose, too, that there will be other differences that Judah will notice but just won’t have the communication skills to express – like the sheer vastness of the stores at home (Another habit I’ve had to break myself of when trying to prepare Judah to go back to the States: I would tell Judah that we were going home for a long time, and he seemed to think that I meant our house.  Nigeria has been home to him for a while, and I realized that I needed to change my terminology.) compared to here, where the stores tend to be a couple aisles at most.  People constantly reach out to hold him the market, too, and often just reach out and take him without permission.  At the very least, he is the center of attention anywhere in a crowd.  This won’t be the case once we return to the States (outside of Grandpa and Grandma’s house anyway.  😉  ), nor will a sea of black faces surrounding him.  And unless we go to a farm, zoo or the Midwest ;), there certainly won’t be animals wandering around like there are here.

A fabric shop in the market

While the photo of the fabric shop above is a pretty common size for such shops, the size of these shops is probably more typical of little "grocery" stores, clothing stores, etc. (Note, by the way, the name of one of the stores. It's always interesting to me to see some of the names things around here have: "Glory to God Restaurant." "Praise God Store.")

I suppose none of us really knows how affected we will be by the transition back, even whilst I think I WON’T be (Well, except for the part where I eagerly anticipate gorging on pre-packaged and convenience foods).

Still, it’s a transition I’m looking forward to – but so is the transition coming back this way, even for all its difficulties and loved ones left behind.

It’s hard to believe that after such a short amount of time I find myself so divided, thinking of both Here and There as home, but it’s a change that I am grateful God has allowed me to experience.


6 thoughts on “Reverse Culture Shock

  1. I found the first time back horrifying … of the four months, I spent the first two grieving … wishing I were back in Ethiopia.

    I asked one of my colleagues, “how do you do it … bouncing in and out of cultures so easily” and she told me it just gets easier as time goes on.

    The second time was better than the first and I suppose the third will be better than the first two. All that to say, beware … reverse culture shock is way worse (and under estimated) than culture shock.

    Oh, and yup, first thing I did when driving on the freeway was honk to the other drivers to notify them that I was coming up on their side … not a good thing to do 🙂

  2. Hey guys! I just found your blog! Great job keeping it up to date and relaying how life really is in Nigeria! Makes me want to go “home”! Let us know if you are in the area (MI/ON)! Janice

  3. Christie: I have this memory of riding with you on I4 with you flashing your headlights and honking while riding closely to the car in front of us…somehow honking may be an improvement! ;p lol! Can’t wait to see you!!!

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